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Amygdala Hijack and how to cope with it

Amygdala Hijack

Conflict comprises a major part of our work life. Our success as well as excellence at work depends heavily on how well we’ve learnt to cope with conflict and resolve adverse conditions. However, our most primal instincts go against these desirable qualities. Not only are we wired to run from any kind of threat or situation of conflict, when confronted with one, most people feel overwhelmed and find it impossible to deal with the situation rationally. We all have examples from the past, which we look in hindsight and regret not having acted differently.

The paralysation we feel, the inability to formulate responses and the accompanying signs of anxiety like racing heart and sweaty palm are a sign of what experts call ‘the Amygdala Hijack’. 

Named after amygdala, the neurotic part of the brain concerned with understanding and responding to fear, amygdala hijack is the phenomenon where, upon perceiving a threat, the amygdala sets off a response preparing us for fight or flight. A set of hormones are released, predominantly stress hormones leading to some very prehistoric responses like tightened throat, flushed face, jaws set, etc. 

As a most primordial set of responses ingrained in humans, during the hijack, the amygdala shuts off the neural pathway to our brain that disables clear and complex thinking. People may feel disoriented as their attention narrows and complex decision making as well as rational analysis disappears in such times. During an amygdala attack, most people do not react based on their judgement of things but in a rather primitive manner- based on their primordial instincts of fight or flight.

To work in positions where conflict management is an essential part of their job, learning to deal with stressful situations is an important part of the process. While one cannot get rid of the amygdalin response system altogether, it is however possible to manoeuvre the responses. One way to do it would be to practice responses opposite to those triggered by amygdala hijack- stay present in the situation, retain control of thoughts and actions, keep negativity at bay and maintain normal breathing. In short, practicing mindfulness is key to gaining control over amygdala hijack.

Here are four simple steps from the book Everything Is Workable that you can use to master conflict resolution and practice mindfulness. 

  • Fight or flight? Just stay – Every individual has their own signs of knowing when they are triggered. It may be change in the tone of voice, sensations across the body, stuttering or struggling with speech. Whatever it may be, identify your trigger response and fight the growing urge to withdraw from the situation. Although your brain is asking you to fight or flight, the best choice in the moment is neither, and to rather stay in the situation and try to understand it. 
  • Overcome negative racing thoughts – When faced with a stressful situation, due to lack of proper information and insight on the issue, our mind fills with negative thoughts about what is happening. This worsens the ongoing situation significantly by making us think of the worst possibility and act accordingly. Although very difficult, it is important to maintain calm and escape the black hole of racing thoughts. 
  • Be aware of your body – Instead of giving in to bodily reactions to stressful situations, it is desirable to pay attention to these sensations and understand them instead of trying to control or change them. Understanding bodily reactions would help us understand our response to stressful situations better and help us be prepared for the next time.
  • Nothing beats somedeep breathing – The magical qualities of deep breathing are not unheard of. It’s time to actually bring them to some good use. Breathing in rhythm (at equal intervals of time) and smoothly and concentrating on our breathing helps us stay in focus and in the present. Deep breathing can help you remain calm and composed more than any other tip or trick.

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